10.7.05

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU SAY D'OH! Hybrid vehicles threaten commuters' trip in the fast lane.

Instead of crawling out of bed at 4 a.m. to beat the morning rush, Frank Murphy sleeps late these days. He says he owes it all to his hybrid car _ and a law that has some of his fellow commuters upset. Drivers of the environmentally friendly cars are allowed to cruise solo in Virginia's car pool lanes, slicing Murphy's daily two-hour commute in half. And since buying a hybrid 18 months ago, Murphy is leaving his home as much as three hours later.

"The quality of life has gone up tremendously," he said.

But Murphy's joy is a source of irritation for his co-worker, Kristine Johnson, who does not own a hybrid. To travel in the car pool lane, she lingers at a commuter lot until two strangers agree to ride with her.

The inconvenience pays off less than it used to: Johnson complains that hybrids are making car pool lanes as congested as regular lanes.

"It's not fair," Johnson said. "In the afternoon it's all hybrids around me. I used to be able to go home in 30 minutes. Now it takes 45."

I suppose this is why I'm still paid. No matter how many times I mention that incentives matter, somebody still misses it.

Brian D. Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, argues against linking hybrids with car pool lanes, which he says exist for an unrelated purpose: taking cars off the road.

"It would be sort of like saying you should allow nurses and school teachers to exceed the speed limit because they contribute positive things to society," Taylor said.

Joe Waldman, general manager of northern Virginia's Landmark Honda, said officials should not be so quick to blame crowded car pool lanes on hybrids. He noted that solo drivers in regular vehicles continue to violate the rules, despite stepped-up enforcement and a new state law doubling some fines to as much as $1,000 for a fourth offense.

But Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joan Morris said, "Even if we got rid of all the violators tomorrow, we'd still have a capacity problem."

In order: there's a reason ambulances, fire trucks, and the Ghost Busters have lights and sirens. Absent some kind of perfect enforcement, carpool lane cheats will be there even at much higher fines. The capacity problem? Do we want to revisit the use of the Highway Trust Fund as an accounting fiddle to reduce the federal deficit?

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